Can Our Reopened Schools Be Safer?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 24 February 2021
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Covid-19; Vaccinations; Schools Reopening

As we move closer to another school reopening cycle, public opinion seems to be coming to terms with the reality that the pandemic may not end neatly and that adaptations to our lifestyles will be required in the medium or even longer term, and this of course applies to schools to when considering future safety approaches. One of the immediate concerns, however, is focused on the question of possibly prioritising teachers in the vaccine rollout programme.

In California it has been decided to set aside vaccines for school staff to expedite school reopening and respond to the concerns of teaching unions there.

 “Governor Gavin Newsom announced Friday that state officials will set aside 10% of California’s weekly allotment of COVID-19 vaccine doses for educators starting next month, in an effort to jump-start the process of reopening more public-school campuses as pandemic conditions improve in communities across the state.

...that includes teachers, support staff, child-care providers and a broad array of affiliated jobs. Higher-education employees will also be considered eligible for priority vaccinations, according to the state guidelines.

Even President Biden weighed in at the first town hall event of his presidency this week, he told CNN “we should be vaccinating teachers. We should move them up in the hierarchy”.

BBC Radio 4 investigating the question “are teachers more likely to catch covid?” were responding to concerns expressed by teaching unions– notably NAS UWT who have asserted that they have data which showed that infection rates among teachers in schools were three times higher than community average rates. These figures were based on the Leeds local authority area but have been disputed by the council who argue that the statistics are unreliable and may for example, include teachers isolating at home. The BBC have looked at The Office for National Statistics data which found a slightly higher level among secondary teachers than community averages but significantly lower levels comparing teachers with other professions and key workers.

Here in Northern Ireland the issue of special school staff vaccination has become a contentious issue. Proposals to offer vaccination to staff working with children needing intimate care, have received a cool reception from special school staff who have all been faithfully working in schools every day during lockdowns.

Health Minister Robin Swann announced in recent weeks that...

“... we have made the decision to offer the vaccine to those staff involved in the direct care of these children and young people.

Staff who are eligible will undertake regular healthcare duties with multiple children and young people, all of which mean they work in close proximity for prolonged periods of time providing a range of interventions, including personal and intimate care and invasive procedures.”

Health officials did not support vaccination for all special school staff stating;

“that they were not prepared to support something which they felt went against the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation)”

Education Minister Peter Weir who would have preferred to vaccinate all special school staff settled for a compromise in the Executive and added that,

“My officials will work with the Department of Health to identify the group of staff who work in special educational settings and fulfil the necessary criteria and offer them the vaccination.”

The reality for many staff, however, is that delivering appropriate education and care in these settings unavoidably involves frequent physical contact with children who do not understand social distancing. Logically therefore, any staff in a special school will probably be exposed to a degree of risk.

NAHT President Dr Graham Gault has supported this view adding that special school head teachers will not agree to decide which staff should be prioritised for vaccination.

“This would be, of course, morally reprehensible, legally dubious and practically impossible, he said.

The reality of school life means that teachers, classroom assistants and other staff do not engage only with one child.

Staff must move around, providing cover, respite and support for children and colleagues.

Most children in the special sector depend on a team of adults to work in close proximity with them.

He concluded by writing that school leaders will not be making any decisions as to who should or should not be vaccinated in our special schools, either directly or indirectly”

At the time of writing Prime Minister Boris Johnston has announced his roadmap out of lockdown and decided to reopen all schools on March 8th in England. Meanwhile in Scotland, Wales and here in Northern Ireland a phased return is still planned, though a debate has started in The Executive about whether or not to follow England’s lead and allow all pupils back to school on March 8th.

 In addition, in England it is suggested that pupils are tested for covid 19 twice a week through a previously trialled home testing – self-administered system. The Guardian however reports grave reservations about using this approach from the National Education Union. Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary, argues that head teachers face a huge logistical challenge to set up mass testing in schools, and that they fear it will be time-consuming and pointless 

 “School leaders are telling us that they’re doing these tests and they just don’t get any positives. Their accuracy is very doubtful for mass testing. They’re not sensitive to small viral loads and secondary school pupils are much more likely to be asymptomatic [than older people]. So they’ll miss a lot of positive cases.”

She also said carrying out such inaccurate tests could be dangerous and give “an entirely false sense of security” to asymptomatic pupils who test negative.

“If you’ve taken a lateral flow test which is giving you a false negative, then it’s all too easy to imagine that lots of teenagers will feel confident they haven’t got the virus and behave accordingly.”

Until this is sorted out there are practical steps schools can take when reopening this time and the new guidance for mask wearing to be mandatory for pupils is probably the best idea around.  Better ventilation and the use of air extraction systems would also help with appropriate distancing and hand hygiene of course. At this stage of the pandemic public understanding and acceptance of these practices is much more a part of everyday life so there is a better chance that children will adhere to them now. Crowded school buses will still present challenges and it is good to see Education Minister Peter Weir acknowledge the problem on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback. Unless however compliance with mask wearing can be monitored and enforced on the bus journeys, the good work in classrooms could be quickly undone.


This article is correct at 24/02/2021

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email

View all articles by Frank Cassidy